Question: How does the Jewish identity in America change from their shift from non-white to white as illustrated by the play The Melting Pot?
I demonstrate in this website how the play The Melting Pot performs America as an idealistic dream where people of all ethnicities and religions can come together and live without discrimination by contrasting the historical tensions between conceptions of whiteness and non-whiteness, and how these categorizations of race profoundly effect the experiences of individuals in two vastly different societies. To analyze the racial construction of Jewish people in America, I will examine historical accounts of Jewish experience in 20th century America. I will focus particularly on immigrants and the process of acclimating to American society in the time period by looking at the construction of radicalized bodies through performance, the racial classification of Jewish people from non white to white, and analyzing the socio historical basis behind the concept of race. This can be done from analysis of accounts of the immigrant Jewish experience in the early 1900s as well as analysis of historical studies of anti-semitism in both Russia and America in this time period. I will also analyze the United States classification of non white and white in America and how this construction of identity ties to the content of the play. I will do deep analysis of the script of the play as well as researching more of the historical context it is written about to gain a holistic understanding of the plot of the play and the implications of the performance techniques itself. Through this combination of methods, I will gain a better understanding of how performance techniques can transform the experience and the impact of racialized bodies on the audience. With this, I hope to gain a better understanding of how the Melting Pot is understood in society as a whole, including the many diverse communities that form America. This can be done because the Melting Pot focuses on the construction of the Jewish identity and the conflict created through the classification of white vs non white. I will also use the reading “On Being White...and Other Lies” to show how this classification is a socio historical designation done to control groups of people.
The Melting Pot follows a Jewish immigrant family, the Quixanos, who escaped massacre in Russia. They are used as a symbol for the American dream of equality and freedom by showing how they hope their categorical shift from non-white in Russia to white in America will change their position in the highly racialized hierarchies of their country's society. The Quixanos desire to be identified as white in America exemplifies the historically held conception that life in America promises equality and freedom. Immigrants throughout American history have chased the “American dream,” hoping for both equal opportunity and an egalitarian society; however, many have been confronted with the racial and socio-economic prejudices similar to that which they were fleeing.
In the play, David Quixano writes a symphony about his dream to wipe away ethnicity and live in a world where all men are treated equally, his vision for America. Credit: Schaefer Center for the Performing Arts
This image shows Roosevelt telling the Russian Tsar to free the Jewish people. This shows America as a liberator of Jewish people while Russia is seen as the oppressor. Credit: Bridgeman Images
The Quixanos escaped racial prejudice against Jewish people in Russia, and, like many immigrants, expected immigration to America to offer an escape from racial hierarchy. In Russia, Jewish people faced poor living conditions, dismal job prospects, and constant violence. Eyewitness accounts detail the atrocious events of pogroms: “It lasted from 11 to 6:30PM. The police stood by but sought not to check the awful work, rather encouraging it… The killing was barbarous; nails were driven into the heads of people, their bones were broken in their hands and bodies, and then they were clubbed to death with rifles.” While the Quixanos escaped the outright violence they experienced in Russia, America offered limited reprieve from prejudice. The American classification of white has fluctuated drastically throughout history, eventually expanding from people of Anglo-Saxon origin, to Southern and Central Europeans, to the modern definition which includes people of Jewish, Middle Eastern, and North African descent. At the time of the Quixanos immigration, they found themselves technically classified as white in American society.
The US law categorized Jewish people as white in the racial census. This allowed them to become naturalized citizens and gain other racial privileges associated with whiteness in America. Credit: Gibson, Campbell, and Kay Jung
However, their high hopes for life in America were dashed by intermittant experiences with racism and discrimination, as well as a persistent feeling of “otherness,” despite moving to a different continent. American reports on Jewish immigration during this time show Jewish people being charged exorbitant prices for passports and boat travel from Russia to America. The Quixanos continue to face discrimination from Russian people in America. This is reflective of the fact that America, while a ethnically heterogenous place, is a double-edged sword; cultural divisions and historical racial concepts still persist, and indeed flourish unchecked, within American society. While the Quixanos escaped Russia itself, they cannot escape the racial prejudices of Russian Americans whom they encounter. Furthermore, the Quixanos cannot escape feelings of exclusion in America. The Jewish community is isolated and segregated from larger “white” society as a whole. The Quixanos, while classified as white, still find themselves far removed from the privileged status that classically defined white Americans enjoy.
To understand the shift of the Jewish racial identity in America, the classification of “whiteness” must be understood. Whiteness is defined in On Being White...and Other Lies” as a concept that is not about skin color, but controlling those who are not seen as white, a socio historical designation. The play shows how while the Quixano family is optimistic about America as a land of racial equality, the anti Jewish sentiment that killled their family follows them to America. The performance embodies and racializes bodies through painting a detailed picture of anti-semitism through spiteful and stereotyping remarks made between the Baron and Quincy: “Ah, let them wait till they have ten million vermin overrunning their country-we shall see how long they will be sentimental. Think of it! A burrowing swarm creeping and crawling everywhere, ugh! They ruin our preasantry with their loands and their drink shops, ruin our army with their revolutionary propaganda, ruin our professional classes by snatching all the prizes and professorships, ruin our commerical classes by monopolising our sugar industries, our oil field, our timber trade”. Through this performance, the Baron brings to life the racial stereotypes that have historically been used to blame the Jewish people for socio-economic issues that face society. This performance exemplifies how Jewish people are racialized through speech when they are blamed and stereotyped.
While David is filled with hope about building a new life of tolerance and acceptance in America, he finds out that Vera's father is the Russian officer responsible for the killing of his family. He sees that the hatred and racism of Russia still follows him in his encounters with Christian Russians in America. Credit: Cathy Hammer
In the article “Slavery, Race, and Ideology,” Barbara Field demonstrates how human beings assume that nature dictates hegemony and that a low social position is a consequence of inferiority. She then goes on to explain how ideology, a created explanation of hegemony, is used to justify these social arrangements. While not necessarily scientifically accurate, ideologies help people understand the realities of their societal situations. This idea is further developed in the “Rethinking Racism” article, racial stereotypes draw lines between “white and non white” to justify the social hierarchy that paints the stereotyped group as inferior. This “non white identity” of Jewish people as embodied in the performance of the Melting Pot, was perpetuated by stereotypes and used to justify their mass murder.
The Quixanos life in Russia shows the extreme experiential differences between classification as white versus non-white. Jewish people in Russia, classified as non-white, face the risk of injury or death in violent pogroms, as well as socio-economic restrictions. Russia’s communist government fervently pushed secularisation, imposing restrictions on Jewish synagogues and religious observances, as well as perpetuating harmful stereotypes. For example, Jewish people were painted as members of the bourgeousie exploiting the interests of the poor, intrisically tied to capitalism, and intent on subverting communism.Russian language media used common physical stereotypes of Jewish people, such as big noses and greasy appearance, to link religious proclivities and physical appearance, further isolating even non-practicing Jewish people who were perceived to be distinguished by unique ethnic features. The Russian government linked Jewish religious practice, perceived Jewish ethnic distinction, and support of capitalism, categorizing Jewish identity as the obstacle to a secular, communist society and the interests of the average Russian. Constant fear and instability motivate the Quixanos to escape to America with the hope of shifting from their categorization as non-white, and the accompanying status of inferiority to white, and the accompanying status of privilege. This relies on the notion that whiteness is associated with privilege, creating a system of racialized hierarchy within society. American society also perpetuates this, albeit on a different scale, compared to Russian society.
This picture shows the corpses of Russian Jewish people killed by a pogrom layed outside of a Jewish hospital. Credit: My Jewish Learning
This photo of a Jewish family in New York exemplifies how Jewish immigrants were able to assimilate into American culture and obtain some of the racial privileges and comforts that non white people in America did not have access to through their shift from non white to white. Credit: Lewis Hine
When the Quixano family fled to America from Russian persecution, they believed, like many Jewish people, in the American dream. The play The Melting Pot performs this dream as one where people of all ethnicities and religions can come together and live without discrimination. The play highlights the historical tensions between conceptions of whiteness and non-whiteness, and how these categorizations of race profoundly effect the experiences of individuals in two vastly different societies. The Melting Pot exemplifies the complex relationship between racialized hierarchies and individual experiences.
Description: The Quixano family fled to America to escape the anti semitisim of Russia and the persecution that arose from their non whiteness in Europe. Their encounters with Russian people from their home country and their recollection of the pogroms in Russia is contrasted with their hopes for equality in America. This is depicted in their encounter with the Russian official who was responsible for the killing of David's family and they were trying to flee: "Ah, let them wait till they have ten million vermin overrunning their country-we shall see how long they will be sentimental"(Zangwill, 120). The hatred used in his "vermin" description of Jewish people shows how they are viewed as inferior and animalistic in his eyes. He speaks dismissively and spitefully about how they are accepted by America. When Vera meets David, he finds out that she is Russian as well. Once he does, he shudders and staggers while remembering the pogrom that killed his family. His uncle describes the brutal and inhumane way that David's father, mother, and sisters were massacred. He then adds, "But you see every few months the newspapers tell us of another pogrom, and then he screams out against what he calls that butcher's face, so that I tremble for his reason. I tremble even when I see him writing that crazy music about America, for it only means he is brooding over the difference between America and Russia"(Zangwill, 83). David's music that his uncle talks about represents the Quixano family's vision for a new life with America as a "melting pot" that will allow them to assimilate into the diverse mix. Through this melting pot, they can elevate themselves from the non white label placed on them in Russia.
This picture shows the loving embrace of David Quixano with a Christian Russian girl named Vera. Although they are now in America, the ethnic division from Russia between Christians and Jewish people haunts them. Credit: Pamela Raith
This picture depicts David's uncle comforting his grandmother. She is is still tied strongly to her Jewish identity and is more free to practice now away from Russia. Credit: Cathy Hammer
Baldwin, James. “On Being White...and Other Lies.” Essence, vol. 14, no. 12, 1984.
Bonillo-Silva, Eduardo. “Rethinking Racism: Toward a Structural Interpretation.” American Sociological Review, vol. 62, no. 3, 1997.
“Eyewitness Accounts of Anti-Jewish Persecution in Russia in the Early 20th Century: The Cowen Report.” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, https://education.blogs.archives.gov/2017/01/12/cowen-report/
Weinberg, Robert. “Demonizing Judaism in the Soviet Union during the 1920s.” Slavic Review, vol. 67, no. 1, 2008, pp. 120–153. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27652771.
Zangwill, Israel. The Melting-Pot: Drama in Four Acts. New York: Macmillan, 1909. Print.
The writing process for this project was a very unique one for me. I started out knowing that I was going to write about the Melting Pot. I knew that what was interesting to me was the concept of race relations and whiteness in the play. I started with a vague idea of wanting to talk about the fluctuating concept of race in the play. I didn’t know how to create that into a research question to start my project with. I also didn’t know how to connect scholarly sources to it. I started reviewing the class readings and found “On Being White...and Other Lies”. This allowed me to further understand the concept of whiteness as a term used to assign power to certain perceived racial groups. I then connected this fluctuating concept of whiteness to the shift in Jewish whiteness from Europe to America and how this shift in whiteness impacts the Jewish identity. This was a huge “aha” moment for me because this is where I finally got the image for where I want to take my project.
A challenging part of the project for me was actually finding ten images. I didn’t end up seeing the play live and couldn’t find any videos online. I think doing the description and focusing on a certain aspect of the project would have been easier if I had visual depictions to focus on.
I didn’t know where to find pictures that would support my question when I couldn’t find any pictures from the actual play. After a day of thinking, I realized I could analyze my project deeper and instead of finding pictures from the play, find pictures that would support the argument I was making, that the idea of whiteness changes and with it so does people’s positions in society. This allowed me a lot for freedom in searching for pictures. Once I found pictures, they also gave me inspiration when I was stuck writing my essay. I would use the pictures whenever my argument got lost or too broad to narrow it down to specific ideas.
Unfortunately one of the hard parts of the project for me was the technology aspect of it. I Had never used the Spark website before and my project was always uploading without saving any of my new edits. Luckily my GSi was very patient and helpful in helping me figure it out, otherwise it would have been an incredibly stressful process for me. Because of this, the -were reviews were not as helpful as they could have been because they were not able to see the latest submitted version of my essay, only the first initial copy I turned in. My first reviewer did not say anything except that they could not see my updated project but I still was able to get some helpful comments from the second reviewer. They gave me some aesthetic aspects of font and font size to help make my project come together as a website and also helped me with my abstract by telling me I should include my thesis in it. They also told me to answer my question in it which was also very helpful because although it seemed clear to me, I realized I need to explain it a little more concisely for the reader.